Lent, Day 2 — A Community of Prophets

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Lent day 2 (Thursday)

“Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in [the skies]. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 CEB)

  1. Yesterday I pointed out that Jesus sets up a pattern in the beatitudes. “Happy are the people who ______, because they will _______.” He invites his disciples to think of these different groups of people: hopeless, merciful, peace-makers, persecuted. “See them all as happy,” Jesus says to his disciples.
  2. Then he breaks the fourth wall. He’s no longer talking about someone else. He’s talking to us—the disciples. “Happy are you.” Oh, you thought this was about someone else? No. It’s about you.This is part of Matthew’s genius: he begins with us as the observers, watching Jesus and the disciples on the mountain. Then he lures us in to consider these various groups of people. Then suddenly Jesus is talking directly to us as the disciples, and we find ourselves—the readers—as startled as they are. See? Patterns. So tricky.
  3. And if it felt odd to call hopeless people and mourning people happy, get a load of this: “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me.” Most of us try to avoid being bad-mouthed in this way.
  4. Notice he doesn’t say “if.” He says “when.” If you are actually following Jesus, it is inevitable. You will get on the wrong side of power. Haters gonna hate.
  5. Okay, let’s talk about heaven. This is where I break from the usual translations, because our culture has screwed this idea up so much. First, nowhere in the gospels is “heaven” a place you go when you die. Second, that’s not even what Jesus is talking about here. In Greek, the phrase here is literally “in the heavens” or, as I’ve translated it here, “in the skies.”The phrase is a euphemism for God’s domain, or the place where God’s reign is already perfect. In a few verses, Jesus will tell the disciples to pray, “Let your will be done on earth as it is done in the heavens.” The motion of the heavens was orderly, though complex, and people believed histories and destinies were written in the stars. So here, when Jesus says, “your reward is great in the heavens,” he is really saying, “your reward is great in God.” God is your reward.
  6. Jesus has already surprised us with the switch, the break in the pattern. He has another subtle switch for us. “The reason you will be persecuted in this way,” he says, “is because that’s how the world treats prophets—the prophets whose mantle you are now wearing.” Surprise! Jesus has just told his disciples they are prophets in the lineage of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Amos. Elijah had kings and queens put out a contract on his life for holding them accountable. Jeremiah was imprisoned and accused of being a traitor for speaking back to his government. Amos was told, “Go back where you came from!” Jesus says, “Y’all are like them.”
  7. Jesus tells his disciples, “Be happy you are counted among their number!” Lots of people in our day think they would have acted boldly and prophetically if they had been born in a different time. They think they would have helped hide Jews from the Nazis, or have marched with Civil Rights foot soldiers. Jesus invites his followers to step up and be a community of prophets today.
  8. Again, I can’t get over how fiery these opening words of Jesus are. I am stunned that Jesus thinks so highly of us.